Horror franchises have a rich history of being remade and rebooted. The most successful have been soft-reboots that acknowledge their past and move forward – for instance, the recent Halloween retconned every other Halloween movie apart from the original to rave reviews. Saw, though, has been going since 2004 and the sequels have all heavily leaned on one another, with the history of infamous trap-setter Jigsaw becoming more and more convoluted over time.
The latest Saw movie, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, takes a new approach. The other eight movies are all canon, yet we follow a new character, Chris Rock's police officer Ezekiel "Zeke" Banks, who has a reputation for reporting corrupt officers. The force is being terrorized by a Jigsaw copycat – not Jigsaw himself, or any other previously seen character from the franchise – who has a vendetta against crooked coppers.
"This storyline became so dense and so convoluted, you had to have seen the previous seven movies to understand the eighth, so every movie was so interconnected and so interwoven that it was hard to bring in a new audience," says Darren Lynn Bousman, who returns to direct Spiral, having previously helmed Saw II, III, and IV. The idea, then, is for Spiral to open up the Saw franchise to a whole new set of viewers, requiring no preparatory work (the first few Saw movies are great viewing anyway) and enough nods to other Saw movies to keep fans happy.
GamesRadar+ and Total Film sat down with Bousman to discuss his new approach to the series, discussing the timeliness of a thriller about a corrupt police force, Rock's passion for the series, and why we could still see an actual Saw 9. Here's the Q&A, edited for length and clarity but still including a segment where Bousman shows off his memorabilia...
Darren Lynn Bousman interview
GR: Spiral isn't an all-out horror – more a police procedural, whodunit with horror elements. What led you to go down that lane with this movie? There are still gross-out horror elements, of course, but you know what I mean!
It was a couple of things. First off, the idea coming back on Spiral, the producers wanted to revitalize the franchise, but we didn't want to make a carbon copy. Jigsaw [the 2017 movie by the Spierig brothers] came out and that was initially the idea to revitalize it. But then we had an idea: "Let's take the series in a completely different way. Let's not hang on to the same mythology. Let's not hang on to the same characters." And the reality is, there is only one Jigsaw, and that's Tobin Bell. No one can compete with him. No one can beat him. He is an iconic presence. And so, the first thing you have to do is get rid of Jigsaw, because that, to me, is like trying to make another Freddy Krueger. You can't do it. Freddy Krueger is Robert England. It's not Jackie Earle Haley [who played the character in the A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot]. It's Robert England.
So we said, "Okay, how do we pay tribute to the original Saw film, yet make it its own thing?" The idea came about to tell another story in the saw universe, that Jigsaw was real, that he existed, he did these crimes that you've seen in one through eight, but this is a different story. And if it was going to be a different story, I wanted it to have a different feel. So gone are the amount of crazy shaky handheld cameras and rapid cuts every two seconds. And we said let's interject a little bit of humor in it. It's not a comedy, but there are moments of humor, which there's never been in Saw movie. And let's tell a story that furthers what Jigsaw was preaching about reforming individuals. He said, "You're a drug addict, I'm gonna put you through this insane experience, and hopefully make you appreciate life." But what's the next evolution of that? Well, the evolution to me is let's reform an institution, not a person, but a group of people an institution. And I think that that's where real power comes from. Because you can you can try to rehabilitate individuals all day. But if you can reform an entire institution, that is a big thing.
So then we looked at what institutions need or could be reformed. In America, there are numerous institutions, whether that be religious organizations, police organizations, the law, so we decided to look at the corruption within the police force. And it just seemed like a very timely thing. But little did we know how timely it was going to be in the months after filming, with Black Lives Matter and the loud protests breaking out over unjust police brutality. So it became very timely in the months after shooting the movie, but it started with the idea of reforming an institution.
Did you make any editorial choices after the protests that made the film feel different, in response to what was going on?
We finished the movie in March 2020 and then we flew back home. Three days later, they closed the border to Canada, which is where the movie was shot and edited. And then the lockdown occurred. And then it kept being lockdown. But the movie was finished. We had finished it, mixed it, created posters, trailers, everything was done. It's a very arduously long process to finish a movie. And we finished it, and then the world shut down. There's always that list of things that I wish that I could go back and do, scenes I wish I could go back and shoot, but that's every movie. But no, the movie has stayed the same from March 2020 to now.
You've touched on Spiral acting as a way of telling a different type of Saw story, but were there ever any talks about doing a hard reboot with a new Jigsaw? Or even doing Jigsaw 2, because the movie still did well at the box office?
In my opinion, as a fan of horror, we had seen it before – if Saw would have stayed the same, the kills might have been different, but the storyline had become so dense and so convoluted, you had to have seen the previous seven movies to understand the eighth, so every movie was so interconnected and so interwoven that it was hard to bring in a new audience. You saw dwindling numbers with each movie. They still did well, but it kept lowering with each movie because each movie required more out of the viewer. So there was an idea – and this is me talking, not the producers – to say 'let's open it up to a whole new audience,' because if we can bring in a new audience with Chris Rock and Samuel Jackson and Max Minghella and they like this movie, they might go back to Saw one, and we might bring in a new audience to go see Saw two, three, and four.
Again, me speaking and not the producers – I think that you're not done seeing Saw movies. I think there will be a proper Saw nine. This is not Saw nine. This is Spiral. It exists in the Saw universe. Jigsaw was real, but it's its own movie. I think there is a very probable world that, if this is successful, that you will see another saw movie – one that is about Jigsaw, one that is about Amanda [played by Shawnee Smith], one that is [antagonist] Hoffman [played by Costas Mandylor] or Cary Elwes [who played Dr. Lawrence Gordon]. Movies that are running these other characters in the same way that you see a new Conjuring movie, but you also see an Annabel one. I think that that a very big realism that could happen if this is successful.
If we see more "Book of Saw" movies, are you still going to want to be part of this series?
I left after Saw four because I stopped having fun. I got into filmmaking... [Distracted] Real quickly. This is really funny. You can't see what I'm doing but I am arranging the gore on my desk. See this?
Yep! [Bousman shows a simple-looking mug]
But wait, wait. So I have this cup. And it's like a really cool zombie cup. And inside the cup. It's body parts. So it's ears and noses and eyeballs. And so I'm literally sitting here cleaning up my eyeballs. Oh, here's a fun thing.
What's that? [Bousman shows a plastic bag filled with...]
These are the fingers. These are the fingers that I took from set of Spiral, from that scene of the guy having his fingers pulled off.
Oh yeah! [GamesRadar+ is unsure what to think]
Listen, I stopped having fun on Saw four. The more successful the movies became, the more they wanted them to stay the same and not take risks. With Saw two, I was able to take a risk. I gave homage to James [Wan]'s Saw but I made it its own thing. But by the time Saw four hit, they found a formula that worked and it stopped being as exciting for me. So coming back into Spiral, I was excited because I could take a risk again. I can say, "Let's make it more of a thriller, let's make it look different. Let's make a hot outside as opposed to green hues. Let's go with the yellow hue." They let me take these risks. I think as long as I can experiment and try to improve upon the previous film, I'm always excited to come back. It's when it becomes the same that I'm like, "You know what, you can get someone else to do this. And they can do it as good as me." I like taking risks. So when I come back, as long as I can continue to experiment and play around, then yeah, I would.
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There's been a lot of talk about Chris Rock and how he's a massive Saw fan. So What was your working relationship like with him? Did he give feedback on what was happening?
I remember, maybe a year and a half before I shot this, going into marketing and pitching a reboot idea for Saw. They knew that I did want to come back at that point and that I had a completely batshit crazy take on what you could do with the franchise. I never heard anything back. Then Chris [Rock] came in with a take and he had a very, very thought-out idea – he referenced Saw two and three a lot. So when they came to him and they talked about directors, he said, "I want to meet with the director of Saw two and three." I flew in to meet him and I didn't realize it was an audition, like he was literally auditioning me and I didn't know. We just talked about this script, I told him what my thoughts were, and I got a phone call as I was leaving this diner where I met him and it was the producers. They said, "Yeah, Chris likes you, he wants you to come back." And I was like, "That's so fucking crazy that I'm gonna direct Chris Rock!" So, yeah, he was a Saw fan.
He had an idea that he wanted to see what a Saw movie would look like with some jokes. He said, "Listen, I love Saw two, but it's so serious. If Detective Matthews could just lighten the mood a couple of times, you would have a whole different audience in there." What's great about what he did is that the movie is not funny. But Chris Rock does some classic Chris Rock in Spiral – his entire opening monologue on Forrest Gump, it's amazing. Then there's that scene of him in the car talking about his wife, saying that "You can give her 600 Tuesday's, doesn't equal three Saturday nights."
Those things are just great. And they break the mood. They break that tone of just utter dread. And I think that's cool. So he had such a great way into it. And was just, all throughout, giving ideas on how to improve it for a different type of audience. And I think so it's got, it feels like a Saw movie, but it also feels like something else. I think that's exciting.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw reaches cinemas on May 14, 2021 in the US and May 17, 2021, in the UK. For more, check out the best Netflix horror movies.